With over eighty men currently claiming to be ‘world champions’, Mark Butcher wonders how boxing would look if the sport returned to an eight division era with a solitary title-holder leading the way in each weight class. Who would be the last men standing?
Long before Dillian Whyte first headlined a ‘stacked’ Pay-Per-View and the WBA started throwing out title belts like confetti, boxing was a far simpler place.
The sport featured eight classic weight divisions with one widely recognised champion before sanctioning bodies sprang up like weeds to drain the lifeforce of the sport with their multiple world titles and self-serving politics.
Now around 85 fighters can claim to be a ‘world champion’ across 17 weight divisions and four major sanctioning bodies – with our friends at the WBA pocketing two sanctioning fees in every weight class due to their two-tier title system (‘Super’ and ‘Regular’). That’s before we even touch on the WBC’s bewildering ‘Franchise Champion’ status that allows two titles in a congested division and retains elite fighters in the family.
An 18th weight class and five more world champions also seem likely with Tony Bellew leading a WBC committee to investigate the merits of a new division between cruiserweight and heavyweight, around 190lbs to 220lbs, to accommodate smaller heavies.
The build of your typical heavyweight has changed vastly since the eight division days. Greats like Rocky Marciano and Jack Dempsey would be campaigning as cruisers in this era of 6ft 7in, 240lbs plus behemoths, but at least the sport had some overall semblance of clarity back then with a solitary champion in each division.
At the moment, the sport is a mystifying and muddied mess, with sanctioning bodies doing their level best to enforce low interest mandatories and avoid unified championships. More champions, more revenue streams. It’s simple economics.
Yet some hope remains for the purists amongst us. Boxing is closing in on three undisputed champions with projected unifications featuring Tyson Fury vs Anthony Joshua (heavyweight) and Josh Taylor vs Jose Ramirez (140lbs) in the pipeline and one already set between Vasiliy Lomachenko and Teofimo Lopez (135lbs) on October 17. But with four mandatory defences almost impossible to accommodate in quick succession, expect those titles to be splintered again soon afterwards – it suits the system and lines the pockets of the sanctioning bodies.
That tired and worn out world title tag has become nothing more than a marketing tool and run into the ground by unscrupulous television networks who want to sell you Poundland produce in Prada packaging. It’s a maddening situation and the true credibility of a world class fighter can only ever be assessed by their strength of opposition and defining victories.
But what if boxing wiped the slate clean and reverted to the classic eight divisions featuring a solitary title-holder? Who would be the last eight men standing in this era of fragmentation and frustration? We attempt to answer that question and unveil the eight true champions of boxing.
There are two genuine claimants to this throne and they are scheduled to meet in a two-fight series beginning in 2021. Anthony Joshua currently holds three title belts (the WBO may strip him of one soon for not facing their No.1 contender Oleksandr Usyk) and has consistently fought in good company, but the stronger claim comes from Tyson Fury. ‘The Gypsy King’ defeated lineal champion Wladimir Klitschko in 2016 before dominating WBC title-holder Deontay Wilder in seven rounds of a one-sided rematch in February this year. What makes those title wins so impressive is they took place on foreign soil. Joshua’s surprise capitulation to Andy Ruiz in 2019 underlined, yet again, the added difficulty in facing world class opposition without the backing of a home crowd. Fury did that twice against two dominant champions – he is the true heavyweight king. None of the current cruiserweight division would be a factor at the higher poundage.
CHAMPION: TYSON FURY. NO.1 CONTENDER: ANTHONY JOSHUA.
This is a relatively easy pick with the heavy-handed Artur Beterbiev having halted another unbeaten champion Oleksandr Gvozdyk in 10 rounds last year in a unification contest. Fellow Russian Dimitry Bivol is his leading rival with wins over Jean Pascal and Joe Smith Jr. looking even more impressive in retrospect given their form of late. With eight weight classes, the leading super-middleweights would be ranked in this division and the likes of Callum Smith, David Benavidez and Caleb Plant would be among valid contenders to the crown.
CHAMPION: ARTUR BETERBIEV. NO.1 CONTENDER: DMITRY BIVOL.
Canelo Alvarez has recently bounced from division to division like a Mexican jumping bean. But he is still regarded as a middleweight on tour and the best in that class, having consistently mixed it at elite level. Canelo’s two close fights with Gennady Golovkin were hardly decisive and ‘GGG’ remains the leading contender to the middleweight crown. In an eight-division world, Jermall and Jermell Charlo would be campaigning in this weight class as well as the cream of a convoluted 154lbs division. Most of them have the physical frame and talent to compete at 160lbs.
CHAMPION: CANELO ALVAREZ. NO.1 CONTENDER: GENNADY GOLOVKIN.
This is the deepest weight class in boxing and probably the hardest to identify a true champion. Terence Crawford is widely regarded as one of the top two or three fighters, pound-for-pound, in boxing. Yet that is based on previous achievements at 135lbs and 140lbs. With most of the top welterweights aligned to Al Haymon’s PBC stable, Top Rank’s Crawford has to make do with fringe contenders or faded names. His record at 147lbs is more solid, than spectacular. Many would favour him to beat unified title-holder Errol Spence Jr. should their paths cross, but the Texan has achieved more at the weight – defeating two good world champions in Kell Brook and Shawn Porter as well as dominating the livewire Mikey Garcia. Meanwhile, Filipino legend Manny Pacquaio has arguably scored the best recent win at the weight after trumping Keith Thurman on the cards last year. Overall, I’d say Spence is the true champion by a nose in a three-horse race. Unified 140lbs title-holders Jose Ramirez and Josh Taylor would feature in a packed field.
CHAMPION: ERROL SPENCE. NO.1 CONTENDER: TERENCE CRAWFORD.
A straightforward selection. Pound-for-pound supremo Vasiliy Lomachenko holds belts with three organisations and should add a fourth when he meets IBF title-holder Teofimo Lopez on October 17. Lomachenko is, however, a natural 130-pounder and the heavy-handed Lopez is a genuine threat to rule the division when they meet next month. Devin Haney’s WBC title holds little merit as it was essentially awarded rather than won. The current super-featherweight elite would probably need to move down rather than up in an eight division world.
CHAMPION: VASILIY LOMACHENKO. NO.1 CONTENDER: TEOFIMO LOPEZ.
Another close call. Gary Russell Jr. is a brilliant, quicksilver boxer, but his inactivity – one fight a year since 2015 – has kept his talents out of the spotlight. He should be one of the sport’s major stars, but isn’t. That may change as Russell becomes more vocal in his search for challenges. Leeds’ Josh Warrington has unseated former IBF title-holder Lee Selby and beaten high quality operators in Carl Frampton and Kid Galahad and, at this point in time, would be regarded as the sole champion. In an eight-division era, unified super-bantamweight champion Murodjon Akhmadaliev would be deemed a significant threat in this class.
CHAMPION: JOSH WARRINGTON. NO.1 CONTENDER: GARY RUSSELL.
Bantamweight would prove fascinating in an eight weight class system with a highly 115lbs competitive division all figuring to mix it at the top table. ‘The Monster’ Naoya Inoue would likely be joined by super-fly stars Juan Francisco Estrada, Roman Gonzalez, Srisaket Rungvisai and Jerwin Ancajas in a strong line-up with Filipino puncher John Riel Casimero, Mexican enigma Luis Nery and unbeaten Frenchman Nordine Oubaali all capable of glory. Size wise, Nicaraguan great Gonzalez might move down rather than up but a merged division looks as good as it gets in boxing. Inoue’s tough night with Nonito Donaire in the WBSS Final last year showed he is human after all. He’d have numerous challenges in a revitalised bantamweight battlefield with Estrada, perhaps, the chief threat.
CHAMPION: NAOYA INOUE. NO.1 CONTENDER: JUAN FRANCISCO ESTRADA.
South African stalwart Moruti Mthalane is perhaps the most underrated boxer in the sport. Mthalane hasn’t lost since 2008 while campaigning at the highest level, around the globe, for well over a decade. A true throwback fighter and road warrior, Mthalane has stopped the likes of John Riel Casimero and Zolani Tete while remaining a constant fixture at the head of the division. His fellow champion Julio Cesar Martinez would be a genuine menace to that flyweight crown with Japanese trio Kosei Tanaka, Ken Shiro and Hiroto Kyoguchi among the leading lights after the inevitable merging of the bottom three divisions. Mthalane’s longevity wins through.
CHAMPION: MORUTI MTHALANE. NO.1 CONTENDER: JULIO CESAR MARTINEZ.
Full list of champions:
Heavyweight: Tyson Fury
Light-heavyweight: Artur Beterbiev
Middleweight: Canelo Alvarez
Welterweight: Errol Spence
Lightweight: Vasiliy Lomachenko
Featherweight: Josh Warrington
Bantamweight: Naoya Inoue
Flyweight: Moruti Mthalane